By Brian Kelly

As we all know, when it comes to boating, having a clear view of what’s ahead is of the utmost importance. On a hot sunny day, the ability to see approaching boats and land is only restricted by distance and how good your binoculars may be. When conditions aren’t ideal and you are navigating your way through the dark, or worse (the fog), you may want to consider using the aid of a radar. If your boating regime consists of only day trips, then you can probably get away without one, but when you start doing overnight trips and venturing out to the unknown, radar could be a lifesaving tool.

Radar (Radio Detection and Ranging) is a key piece of the marine electronics puzzle. It allows you to see other vessels, pick up approaching storms, locate markers/buoys and distinguish land. A radar works the same way your depth finder does; it sends a pulse to a target and measures the time and distance it takes to bounce back. The scanner in radar will rotate 24 to 48 times per minute.

There are two options when it comes to radars: enclosed (radome) or open array. Considering the price on an enclosed dome is much less than the open array, one may ask what the benefits of the open array are? It gives you better distance and better imagery. An open array’s beam width is half that of an enclosed dome, this means it can pick up targets better. Also, most enclosed domes do not go above 4 kW which is indicative of the distance they can see.

As far as the radar technology, that depends on what type of radar you are using. Ten years ago it was all the same technology: pulse (magnetron). Now FMCW (Frequency Modulated Continuous Wave) is in use as well. FMCW radars, also known as solid sate radars, are different from the pulse in the way they measure distance. As mentioned before, the pulse radar measures the time it takes to hit a target and bounce back. FMCW radars transmit a continuous frequency and that frequency will change depending on how far away the targets are. About the only company with FMCW radars for the recreational market is Navico (Simrad, B&G, Lowrance, Eagle). Simrad has two solid state radars on the market, the 3G/4G radomes and their latest, Halo. The 3G/4G radars were the first to hit the market and have zero start up time, excellent short range performance, but their downfall is the long range.

The recently released Halo combines the benefits of the Pulse and the 3G/4G (Pulse Compression) and has good short range and long range. Don’t count out the tried and true pulse radars as they still have some of the best long range radars on the market.

The stated ranges differ from Pulse to FMCW. Below you can compare general specs:

4 kW Radome (Pulse):

Range of 36 to 48 nm (Nautical Miles)
Diameter of 18 to 24 inches

6 kW Open Array (Pulse):

Range of 64 to 72 nm
Array of 48 to 60 inches

12 kW Open Array (Pulse):

Range of 72 nm
Array of 48 to 60 inches

25 kW Open Array (Pulse):

Range of 96 nm
Array of 48 to 60 inches

Halo 3 Open Array (Pulse Compression):

Range of 48 nm
Array of 36 inches

Halo 4 Open Array (Pulse Compression):

Range of 64 nm
Array of 48 inches

Halo 6 Open Array (Pulse Compression):

Range of 72 nm

Array of 60 inches

All the new and fancy technology may be nice to have, but you have to take a close look at your current system. Unlike the autopilot, depth finder, or GPS that are interchangeable between manufacturers, a radar must be matched up with the multifunction display of said manufacturer.

If you are in the market for a complete new system, the options are limitless, if you want to add on to your current set-up, take a look at your unit and research what is compatible and

available as far as radars. Another option to look out for is radar overlay. If you have an autopilot system on board, you more than likely have an electronic compass. With the integration of your display and aupilot, you can overlay the radar imagery right over top of the navigation screen. This is a nice feature if the split screen function is too small, or it’s too much effort to switch between screens.

It goes without saying that when you get into a system with radar, the price goes up considerably. You can get into an entry level radar package for roughly $4,000. From there you can go above and beyond $20,000. Another option to get into a radar package without spending the big bucks is Furuno’s wireless radar. The DRS4W is a standalone unit that will connect to your iPad, or iPhone. Simply purchase the app and connect the radar to a power supply. This gives you the ability to roam freely throughout the boat and stay within your budget.

When it comes to installation, placement is critical. Not just for the radar, but for the other pieces of electronics on board. Also, take note that exposure to a radar while in operation is not advised. Just like a microwave, or cell phone, it gives off small amounts of radiation.

If confusion still lurks after reading this article, seek out your local marine electronics dealership or marina for help.

Happy boating!

This article is featured in the Winter issue of Boats&Places.